The story of Cornelius

Published 9:15 am Thursday, August 17, 2017

Most of us have our favorite Bible stories from when we were kids. Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Daniel in the lion’s den and Jesus walking on the water are all staples from our past. I always liked the story of David and Goliath because I had a big Bible storybook that had a graphic picture of David hoisting the severed head of the defeated giant.

But, as Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13, “When I was a child I … reasoned like a child.”

In my older years, I have developed an increased appreciation of the story of Cornelius in Acts 10.

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Cornelius was a Gentile, someone outside of the Hebrew tradition. He was also an officer in the occupying army, a Centurion in the Roman Legions. He was an outsider religiously and nationally -— someone who a lot of the Jewish people of his town would have kept their distance from.

But Cornelius was unusual in one sense — he was a believer. He feared God and he gave alms to help the poor and he kept up a prayerful life. One day Cornelius had a dream that an angel of the Lord told him to send some of his soldiers to a nearby town where the apostle Peter was staying.

Peter, meanwhile, was getting his own vision from God. It was of all kinds of animals the kind that Jewish law prohibited him from eating. A voice from heaven said, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” When Peter refused, the voice said, “What God has created, you must not call unclean.”

Peter wonders about this, but when the emissaries from Cornelius come to ask him to go with them, he gets the message — just like those animals, Peter is not to call Cornelius — the Roman centurion and Jewish outsider that he is — unclean.

I’ve thought about that a lot lately, with all of the horrible events of last weekend in Charlottesville still moving about in my head. The story of Cornelius reminds me and reminds us that what God has created, we are not to label as unclean. No matter their skin color, no matter what religion they practice and no matter their sexual orientation.

The hard part for me is remembering what God also says that about those white supremacists and Klan members and Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. I may vehemently disagree with their opinions on our fellow human beings and on politics, but they are still children of God. What God has created we must not call unclean.

In these days of dividing up into sides and viciously attacking those who are different, I think we need to remember this story, and others like it, that give us a picture of God as a God of love. 

A God who reconciles. A God who reaches out to all, and not just those we like.

A God who invites us to do likewise.

Rev. Dr. Tom Robinson is pastor of Farmville Presbyterian Church. His email address is